I find myself forgetting much of anything about the 2020 season, as do most Michigan Wolverines fans. It did not take long for the program to justify that practice, and three wins over Ohio State, three Big Ten Championships, and three College Football Playoff appearances later, it is laughable to even look back at that 2-4 anomaly.
In September 2021, though, it all felt very real. Jim Harbaugh just barely returned and Michigan started the season unranked with question marks virtually everywhere. With the benefit of hindsight we can choose any of a number of moments as turning points that culminate in Monday night, but for me it all started under the lights against the Washington Huskies, the first big game post-2020.
There are countless amazing memories since that night, but that was the first sign that maybe the darkest days were gone. It feels absolutely poetic that Michigan now has a chance to clinch its first title since 1997 — which came via Washington’s rival, in the venue the Wolverines just emerged from victoriously — against the school that effectively kicked off this illustrious era. Few would have expected at that time that three years later we would be here, but that is what makes it so special.
The 2023 Huskies are much better than that team, but the 2023 Wolverines have only gotten stronger as well. The narratives love this evergreen-underdog Washington squad and its prolific offense, and the naysayers continue to cast their doubts on a Michigan team that has done nothing but deliver. For one last time, this group can go out and handle its business and finally have the ultimate final word.
No. 1 Michigan Wolverines (14-0) vs. No. 2 Washington Huskies (14-0)
Date & Time: Monday, Jan. 8, 7:30 p.m. ET
Location: NRG Stadium, Houston, TX
Offense: Victors valiant
To start with the stats, Washington has the No. 44 defense per SP+ (one spot ahead of Michigan State) which is ninth-toughest Michigan will have faced this season. Four of the past five games were against top-10 defenses, with Maryland just outside at 13th. By most metrics, this would be the worst defense to win a national championship in the College Football Playoff era.
The biggest issue for the Huskies is the run defense. They give up 4.4 yards per carry and are bottom 10 in success rate, which is an absolutely terrible matchup against Michigan and Blake Corum. Expect some creative fronts and run blitzes to try to slow the run game down, but this is an extreme imbalance that plays right into Harbaugh’s preferences and the strength of this program.
What makes this advantage even more significant is that it goes against how Washington wants to play. While the Huskies are all about big plays and launching the ball downfield, the Wolverines can control the tempo and limit the number of possessions in the game. If Washington cannot stop the run, this could turn into a classic “boring” performance of Corum just churning out first down after first down.
I do think Michigan needs to be prepared to throw the ball, and the opportunities will be there, especially if Washington commits extra defenders to stop the run. The Huskies do not have the same secondary as Alabama, and there should be more available for the Wolverines pass catchers. This is not a matchup that requires trick plays or risky throws into tight windows. Instead, the offense just needs to trust its best players to go out and execute. Colston Loveland feels like a big weapon here, and I still like the prospect of Donovan Edwards despite taking a step back this season.
J.J. McCarthy once again proved last week that he is the complete package, and the quarterback will need to be smart with the ball and hit his playmakers. However, his legs can be a big boost in the ground game as well and everything is going to be on the table. He and Corum are arguably the best ever at their respective positions in Michigan history, and they will get a chance to win this game for their team by doing what they do best.
Defense: Conquering heroes
The stats are quite different on the other side of the ball. SP+ has the Washington offense at No. 4; Alabama is at 11th, and the next best Michigan has faced was Penn State down at 30th. Of course, this metric also grades the Wolverines as the best defense in the entire country, and neither side has faced an opposing unit as dominant as the other. While the Huskies can be quite prolific, this matchup is definitely strength-on-strength with no overwhelming favorite.
Everything starts with Michael Penix and the elite receiving corps. The run game is fine, but even with a completely healthy Dillon Johnson it is not what causes fear. Instead, Washington is going to throw the ball a ton and it is foolish to think Michigan can completely shut the passing game down. But like against Ohio State any of the past three seasons, there is definitely a path to success here that allows the damage to be minimized.
It really comes down to the secondary preventing home runs and forcing Penix to drive the entire field methodically. Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan, and Ja’Lynn Polk against Will Johnson, Mike Sainristil, and Josh Wallace are matchups that cannot go more than 60-40 towards Washington. The Wolverine defensive backs do not need to be superstars, but they do need to be good enough. The Huskies may rack up some yards, but if they have to settle for field goals, Michigan wins this game.
The gameplan against Penix will look a lot different than Jalen Milroe because of the latter’s mobility, meaning Jesse Minter can devote more resources to the secondary. Still, timely blitzes make sense, and Penix sees a big drop-off when under duress. Minter has been excellent in his stunts and schemes all season, and confusing the offensive line while disguising coverages is Michigan’s surest way to limit this potent offense.
As mentioned above, this defensive approach plays into the Wolverines’ favor. Washington wants to air it out and turn this game into a shootout. Forcing the Huskies to drive the field consistently is not their style of play, and dinking and dunking may yield yards, but also eats up time. I trust the Michigan defensive line to win enough against the newly crowned Joe Award Winners (lol) to derail drives and keep Penix out of the end zone, even if they end in points.
Champions of the West
Washington is a good team that has been tested all season and come out unblemished. The two wins against Oregon are probably as good as any of Michigan’s and it is true to say the Wolverines have not seen an offense like this all season. There is no Cinderella story — the Huskies deserve to be here. Vegas gives Michigan a small, but notable edge, and that seems completely fair.
However, while Washington fans might want to call it “team of destiny” vibes, there is legitimate reason to question wins over Arizona State (15-7) and Washington State (24-21), SP+ defenses ranked 89th and 75th, respectively. This electric offense can certainly be limited, and those acting like it is a foregone conclusion that the Huskies light up the scoreboard may end up looking quite foolish.
The analytics paint a picture that is awfully favorable on the whole. SP+ likes Michigan by nearly two scores, and the way these teams match up looks like a dream scenario for one and a perfect storm for the other. Of course, everyone is going to think back to similar statements made about TCU, but this team has proven that last year’s woes should not be held against it anymore.
The Wolverines do not need to be perfect to win this game; they are 100 percent the team with the larger margin for error due to style of play and how the rosters match up. Even a good-not-great performance should be sufficient (though the special teams did everything it could last week to really test that theory). Basically, a quality Michigan performance is enough to take home that elusive title.
And that is where we stand heading into the biggest game of the century. Harbaugh and Michigan control their fate and look very likely to do what seemed impossible even just three seasons ago. Most of us will be preparing for the worst until the clock hits zero because that is what we have been subjected to for decades, but we are witnessing history being rewritten — just one final page remains in that story. Go Blue.